An Earthquake Could Topple Hundreds of Buildings, and L.A. Leaders Are Doing Nothing
In ex-City Councilman Hal Bernson's day, Los Angeles was a leader in preparing for the Big One, the 7 magnitude or greater earthquake that geologists say is inevitable and overdue - and will be unleashed upon Los Angeles by the San Andreas, Hollywood, Puente Hills, Santa Monica or Newport-Inglewood fault.
Between 1981 and 1992, Bernson saw to it, against great opposition, that almost all of the city's 8,080 brick buildings constructed before 1933 were strengthened so that millions of bricks wouldn't turn into lethal projectiles when the big temblor finally comes. He fought apartment landlords, the Central City Association and other political forces, convincing the City Council to mandate the retrofits.
"We overruled the opposition - we managed to get 10 votes on the City Council. It wasn't easy," Bernson recalls. But 11 years after Bernson's 2003 departure from City Hall, L.A.'s building and safety program to prevent widespread death and injury from a major quake is in tatters.
Capitol Towers may have insufficient rebar and be at risk of collapse in a quake. Foreground: "Trenching" efforts by another landowner, in search of the active Hollywood Fault.
The city lags behind San Francisco by at least a decade in tackling two looming dangers: thousands of "soft-story" buildings, which sit atop poorly supported carports and garages - in L.A., mostly condos and apartments, including the famed "dingbats" - and 1,454 "nonductile" concrete buildings built before 1980, which lack sufficient steel rebar to meet quake standards.
Berkeley and UCLA researchers believe that, during a big quake, perhaps 75 of the city's 1,454 concrete buildings could collapse and far more could suffer major damage such as cracking and buckling, killing and injuring thousands of people. At the same time, other scientists say thousands of soft-story buildings, including dingbat apartments housing thousands of residents, could collapse or suffer life-threatening damage.
Now retired and living in the San Fernando Valley, Bernson says, "We already know what needs to be done. All that is required now is to make it mandatory. I hope we don't have to wait until another disaster before the city acts and the state acts. Unfortunately, that's usually how things work."
The contrast between San Francisco and L.A. could not be greater. Beginning Sept. 15, San Francisco will mandate retrofitting of its pre-1978 soft-story, wood-frame buildings, which include large numbers of old Victorians with parking on the ground floor and apartments above. It's likely to cost $60,000 to $130,000 per structure to renovate the 2,800 to 3,000 buildings - with the cost to be paid by renters through long-term rent increases of about $8 to $50 per month, with low-income tenants being exempted.
Under its 30-year Earthquake Safety Implementation Program, the result of a 10-year study completed in 2008 into all aspects of quake threats, San Francisco now mandates that, by 2020, owners also must begin shoring up that city's fragile, nonductile concrete buildings.
(Among other things, San Francisco's far-reaching study showed that 85 percent of its vulnerable soft-story buildings, where 65,000 people live and work, could be rendered unlivable by a magnitude-7.2 quake, which could kill or injure thousands.)
Many Bay Area residents credit Laurence Kornfield, San Francisco's former chief building inspector, who fought for the plan alongside then-mayor Gavin Newsom amidst intense infighting, and then persuaded current Mayor Edwin M. Lee to embrace its recommendations. Paul McEntee, a structural engineer involved in the effort, says Kornfield "spearheaded this - he was a champion of it."
"To see San Francisco moving forward, that's impressive - and we need to get back in that line," former Los Angeles City Councilman Greig Smith says.
L.A. has no active plan to address its thousands of older, potentially killer buildings.
One major reason for this is that L.A.'s equivalent to San Francisco's Kornfield was Andrew Adelman, general manager of L.A.'s Department of Building & Safety from 1997 to 2009. According to key players from that period, Adelman vociferously opposed earthquake retrofitting of L.A.'s substandard concrete buildings, and often used his position on the California Seismic Safety Commission and influential task forces to argue for focusing on creating better new buildings rather than strengthening fragile existing ones.
A key building official, Karl Deppe, "was ready to go" with Bernson's mid-1990s plan for retrofitting older concrete buildings after the Northridge quake, but "nobody in the buildings wanted to spend money - they don't care," Bernson recalls.
With then-mayor Richard Riordan and Adelman opposed to mandated retrofitting, L.A. adopted a voluntary program under which property owners are required to strengthen their buildings only if they significantly upgrade or change the building's use.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has called older, poorly reinforced concrete buildings the top threat to human safety in a quake. But former councilman Smith, who in 2003 took over Bernson's seat, couldn't even get a three-person City Council committee to agree to his plan to merely count the nonductile buildings.
Smith tells L.A. Weekly: "We talked to [Andrew] Adelman about how crucial it was to go after the vulnerable, nonductile buildings, and what did Andrew Adelman say? He said to us, repeatedly, 'This is not a problem. This is not a problem.' We could not figure him out. ... ... He even killed us on trying to get gas shutoff valves approved by the state."
Smith and others tried, around 2007, under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, to create a plan to review the dangers presented by nonductile concrete buildings but ran into walls put up by Adelman, the Building Owners and Managers Association and other business groups.
"We had the Concrete Masonry Association from Sacramento, a legitimate group of industry experts, backing us," Smith says. Even seven years ago, that association had already "tentatively identified 1,500 to 2,000 old concrete buildings" at risk of collapse in a serious quake, he says.
In 2009, Adelman was forced to resign by Villaraigosa amidst a lurid scandal after a city consultant alleged that she had blacked out during a lighthearted downtown "bar crawl" with city employees, including Adelman - and awoke hours later in his bedroom, where he was vaginally and anally raping her with multiple dildos while porn played on a big-screen TV. After the story surfaced in the media, she refused to go public and the district attorney announced he lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute.
Smith, recalling that scandal, says, "In so many ways, Andrew Adelman was bad news - and he had a profound effect on where we are in unpreparedness for earthquakes today. ... One of the things we teach in public policy is, pounce when you get an opening. But instead, when we tried to pounce, the window closed." (Adelman could not be reached for comment.)
In 2008, as the recession hit, San Francisco was wrapping up its extensive, 10-year study into its vulnerabilities from a Big One. But in Los Angeles, "Everything was shelved," Smith says. "We just couldn't do it. We got lots of push-back from the building owner associations. But that time is coming back around - there's an opportunity here."
One of Garcetti's first orders of business, Smith says, should be to reform the Department of Building & Safety.
Up next, who blew the whistle?
At Yucca and Argyle, a developer is digging deep underground to see if the Hollywood Fault lurks below.
It was left to angry community groups and the media, especially the Los Angeles Times, to force the current discussion about the potentially catastrophic risks posed by older, non-retrofitted concrete and soft-story buildings.
Until late last year, the City Council and Mayor Eric Garcetti had other things on their minds. They were moving to substantially increase the population density of Hollywood, approving in concept the controversial residential and commercial Millennium skyscrapers, which were to rise 39 and 35 stories in low-slung Hollywood. The city had already approved the now nearly completed, $200 million, commercial and residential complex near the Pantages Theatre, dubbed Blvd 6200.
But last summer, neighborhood groups Save Hollywood and Stop the Millennium Hollywood Project, which strongly oppose Garcetti's dream of tall towers in Hollywood, assailed the proposed Millennium project, warning that it sat atop the active Hollywood fault - and releasing documents to back up their claim.
During the ensuing political controversy, the Times last fall published a series of stories on the quake dangers presented by pre-1980 concrete buildings concentrated in Hollywood, downtown, Koreatown, Westlake and other areas. (See accompanying map, "Inventory of Nonductile Concrete Buildings in Los Angeles.")
That Times series revealed the existence of a new list created by a team of University of California researchers, which identified, by address, 1,454 concrete buildings in L.A. built before 1980, which could lack sufficient steel rebar to survive a huge temblor.
The Department of Building & Safety knew of the list as early as February 2013, but city officials didn't ask for a copy of it until eight months later, after Villaraigosa stepped down and Garcetti became mayor.
Jack Moehle, a UC Berkeley engineering professor who led the inventory effort, says he didn't receive a formal request for the list until Oct. 24, from Building & Safety chief Raymond Chan. That request came 11 days after the Times published a front-page story revealing the list's existence.
Then the researchers grew skittish, fearing they could be sued by landlords if they publicly identified buildings that are potentially at risk. In a disclaimer, they emphasized that it's not a list of "dangerous" buildings or those "at greater risk of collapse," but merely nonductile concrete buildings erected before the 1976 building codes kicked in.
Finally, in mid-January, the list was released publicly, but Moehle says, "UC Berkeley didn't appreciate this being made into a media discussion. It made the university look bad."
The list shows that the greatest concentrations of potentially at-risk old concrete buildings is downtown, with 390 buildings; Hollywood with 109; Koreatown with 94; Westlake with 79; and Mid-Wilshire with 41.
These concentrations mean that a major quake on the San Andreas, Hollywood, Puente Hills, Santa Monica or Newport-Inglewood fault could devastate large parts of those communities - not to mention South L.A. and the Westside, where dingbat complexes, with a soft-story bottom floor, are common.
Councilman Tom LaBonge, in a series of motions since last year, has urged updating of L.A.'s approach to quake-susceptible buildings, but nothing has come of his ideas.
Activist John Walsh, a fixture at City Hall hearings, says, "We have no plan, preparedness, nothing in the city. There is no interest on the City Council. They consider it a pain in the ass. Until the general public becomes scared as hell, nothing happens."
A few days before the list of 1,454 buildings went public, in mid-January, Mayor Garcetti announced that he was naming noted U.S. Geological Survey seismologist Lucy Jones as his quake adviser and called for an aggressive effort on earthquake safety.
Last week, City Councilman Bernard Parks introduced a plan in which renters would pay extra rent to finance the strengthening of substandard soft-story and concrete buildings in which they live, similar to San Francisco's financing of its soft-story retrofitting.
Smith hopes that someone in City Hall will channel his old boss, Councilman Bernson, who was credited with saving lives during the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
Bernson's much-resisted efforts to retrofit brick buildings proved to be in the nick of time. Two years after those retrofits were completed, the Northridge quake collapsed local freeways and buildings, killing 57 people. Nobody died in a brick building; only one collapsed. But nonductile concrete buildings built before 1980, when new 1976 building standards became widely used, proved to be a devastating hazard. Four collapsed, and 20 were damaged.
Judith Steele, a former public safety legislative analyst for the City Council for about 15 years and a staff member on the disaster-expediting committee after the Northridge quake, says Bernson "didn't really care about the notion that some topics are 'political suicide.' ... His successor Greig Smith, as well as Councilman Tom LaBonge, have tried to carry on Bernson's tradition. [But] the city doesn't have that leadership anymore."
Steele says of Mayor Garcetti's decision to bring in Lucy Jones, "He had better be serious, or [Jones] won't waste her time."
But Smith holds out hope, saying, "I have a great feeling about Eric putting together a decent team of people - I think he does care."
Up next, the scary video.
If and when the City Council devises a plan, retrofitting of soft-story and nonductile concrete buildings will be extremely costly. Gregg Brandow, professor of engineering practice at USC, says the work on concrete buildings first requires a thorough investigation of beams and columns. "Sometimes engineers have to use radar and chip into the concrete ... and see if the building has enough rebar." He estimates retrofitting will cost $100,000 for a small building and up to $1 million for a large one.
Bernson praises his successors in City Council District 12, Smith and current Councilman Mitch Englander, who have pushed for retrofitting, but says, "The old council was deeply concerned about their own community within the city of Los Angeles. I don't think the same thinking exists today. ... You can't just turn away when you get opposition."
The greatest motivator, Smith suggests, might be a widely viewed computer simulation (above) released online by scientists at Stanford (and reported by L.A. Weekly in "?'The Big One' Earthquake Will Hit L.A. Harder Than We Thought"), showing that a 7-magnitude quake on the San Andreas Fault in Palm Springs would funnel intense seismic waves along a 60-mile pathway directly into downtown L.A. The waves would shake most of the city like Jell-O.
"When the city has this [retrofitting] discussion again, all we need to do is show [them] that computer-generated view of the San Andreas quake coming from Palm Springs that scares the crap out of people," Smith says.
Stanford's scientists confirmed a 2006 supercomputer prediction that downtown L.A. would suffer three times more ground motion than surrounding areas of the L.A. Basin.
Hollywood-area City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell several weeks ago told one newspaper, "Let's be clear on one thing: These buildings in question were built decades ago, and have withstood many earthquakes since then."
But the popular urban legend that O'Farrell is embracing - that older buildings are safe because they have survived past quakes - is untrue.
UCLA Civil and Environmental Engineering Department chairman Jonathan P. Stewart, who helped create the list of 1,454 pre-1980, nonductile buildings, explains that if L.A. had previously suffered multiple, large earthquakes on the Hollywood, Santa Monica or Newport-Inglewood fault, "and the buildings had been fine during those earthquakes, then we could say those buildings are just fine. But that hasn't happened."
Instead, Stewart says, "The earthquakes [in modern times] have all been farther away," such as the 1994 Northridge and 1971 Sylmar quakes, "and produced relatively modest shaking. So really, those buildings haven't been tested."
Los Angeles' leaders have all but abandoned earthquake-safety philosophy in implementing the city's General Plan and, especially, the Hollywood Community Plan, says Cal State University Northridge urban planning professor Dev Vrat. The "safety element" of L.A.'s General Plan, for example, relies on an outdated, decades-old geological map that fails to warn city planners about the accurate locations of all of the known, active faults.
Vrat, who has spent years advising cities on how to plan future growth, slams city leaders for their 2012 approval of a Hollywood Community Plan that calls for substantially increasing Hollywood's density - an area that city geologist Dana Prevost, the Department of Building & Safety and other officials knew was underlaid by an active fault.
"You build outside of earthquake-prone areas and you do not tell private developers it's OK to build in a fault area!" Vrat exclaims. "That never should have happened."
Vrat credits an outcry from Hollywood community activists and neighborhood councils, as well as the media, with forcing the Department of Building & Safety and City Council to insist recently that developers conduct seismic studies.
"It's incredible to me - you don't put development in harm's way. Safety is one of the key directives of good planning," Vrat says.
In January, state geologists released a long-awaited new map of the Hollywood fault, which confirmed that the Millennium twin skyscraper project, as activists claimed, sits directly atop a fault trace - an old rupture that marks the active fault - and thus is illegal to build.
The Hollywood Earthquake Fault Zone: Long dashes are approximate locales of active fault traces. (Project sites added by L.A. Weekly)
California Geological Survey
Community activist George Abrahams has called for a grand jury investigation to review how the Millennium project won backing from the city geologist, Building & Safety, Planning Commission, City Council and the mayor, saying: "This whole matter stinks so badly that it's time for a criminal investigation to get to the bottom of how City Hall colluded with the developer for so long to hide the truth."
The developers insist they complied with all laws and conducted seismic studies that city officials said were sufficient.
The state geological map of Hollywood shows that the new Blvd 6200 complex, which contains more than 500 residential units and extensive retail space, also sits directly on top of the fault.
In a scenario that would be unthinkable in San Francisco, the L.A. City Council and Department of Building & Safety never required the Blvd 6200 developers to conduct a seismic study. Instead, in an Environmental Impact Report, supported by the Department of Planning and the City Council, the project's developers claimed that the nearest state-recognized "fault zone" was the Newport-Inglewood fault, a full 5 miles away in Culver City.
Brand-new Blvd6200 contains 500 apartments but sits precariously atop the active Hollywood Fault.
Michael Woo, a member of the L.A. Planning Commission when it approved Blvd 6200 in 2007, recalls that during their briefings, "the earthquake issues were never brought up" by the top planning and building safety officials overseeing the project.
Several weeks ago, the Hollywood Community Plan was tossed out as illegal by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, who found that city officials had greatly exaggerated the potential for population growth in Hollywood to justify their plan for far bigger and taller buildings - such as Millennium Hollywood.
Three community organizations - Save Hollywood, Fix the City and La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Association of Hollywood - won that lawsuit, which has forced city leaders back to the drawing board to substantially redo the findings in the Environmental Impact Report. For now, the city must use its old Hollywood Community Plan - which allows for extensive additional building density but not skyscrapers in Hollywood.
Leron Gubler, president and CEO of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, insists, "That doesn't stop developments - they have to seek 'variances' from the old plan" if they want to go bigger than existing zoning rules allow. "Developments will continue to go forward - it's just more difficult to do."
But attorney Robert P. Silverstein, who represented the community groups fighting the Hollywood skyscraper concept, says their courtroom victory is "going to drastically affect current and future projects in Hollywood, which no longer can assume 'the sky is the limit'?in terms of height and density - Garcetti's nightmarish vision of Blade Runner."
Robert H. Sydnor, an engineering geologist who previously worked for California Geological Survey for 25 years, says: "It is time for a significant internal change within the Department of Building & Safety of the City of Los Angeles. Building permits for multimillion-dollar, high-rise structures are being issued by L.A. city officials who have no understanding of strong-motion seismology, holocene active faults and geologic hazards. This is a significant disservice in public safety."
Sydnor has "read 2013 official comments from the L.A. Planning Department that wrongly state that the earthquake ground motion in Hollywood is no greater than elsewhere in the city. With the active Hollywood fault cutting right through Hollywood, plus basin-edge amplification effects in strong-motion seismology, these L.A. city official comments are egregiously false and scientifically wrong."
Mayor Garcetti has a solid example to follow in L.A.'s backyard, if he launches a plan to retrofit substandard old buildings that could kill thousands of Angelenos: the Los Angeles Unified School District.
A 1999 state law, AB 300, required the state to create a list of all pre-1976 concrete school buildings, but the law doesn't mandate retrofitting.
LAUSD has spent hundreds of millions of dollars replacing or retrofitting 19 of them - in addition to demolishing buildings at Burbank Middle School and shuttering the gym at University High School because they were too close to earthquake faults.
Working from a list of 667 old schools built of concrete before 1976, the district has deemed many of them safe, but still faces nearly $1 billion in retrofitting or rebuilding.
The new state geologist's map of the Hollywood fault revealed that one school, Atwater Avenue Elementary School in Atwater Village, is immediately next to or on top of the fault. LAUSD supervising structural engineer Doc Nghiem says LAUSD will now "do whatever necessary to ensure it's safe."
Jeff Millman, spokesman for Mayor Garcetti, says City Hall is ready to address the 1,454 older concrete buildings that could pose life-threatening danger. But no matter how fast the city moves, it will be years before the buildings are partially torn apart and inspected - costly work that merely determines which ones contain insufficient rebar.
Garcetti's administration, Millman says, "will evaluate this and other research as we work to make L.A. more prepared for the next big earthquake."
Greig Smith and others believe more is needed. Like urban planner Vrat and geologist Sydnor, Smith calls for starting with "a cleansed house" at the Department of Building & Safety.
Turn the page to see a guide to how many buildings are at risk in your neighborhood.
Neighborhood Guide to Potentially At-Risk Old Concrete Buildings
Experts stress that nobody knows which of L.A.'s 1,454 older, concrete buildings will collapse in the big quake scientists agree will hit the city. Some buildings have been retrofitted over the years to modern standards but it is unclear which ones. Others may have originally been built beyond the construction standards of the day.
If 75 concrete buildings collapse, it will mean widespread loss of life and many thousands of serious injuries, particularly if the quake hits during the daytime, when more of the concrete buildings - many of them offices or industrial structures - are filled with people.
According to data released by researchers in mid-January, the potentially at-risk buildings are located in the following Los Angeles neighborhoods:
NUMBER OF BUILDINGS AT RISK IN YOUR AREA
Arlington Heights 8
Atwater Village 7
Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw 3
Beverly Grove 7
Boyle Heights 34
Canoga Park 9
Century City 9
Chesterfield Square 2
Cypress Park 1
Del Rey 5
Eagle Rock 13
East Hollywood 35
Echo Park 10
El Sereno 4
Elysian Park 2
Elysian Valley 3
Exposition Park 5
Glassell Park 3
Gramercy Park 1
Granada Hills 1
Green Meadows 7
Hancock Park 12
Harbor City 14
Harvard Heights 4
Harvard Park 1
Highland Park 5
Historic South-Central 27
Hollywood Hills 8
Hollywood Hills West 2
Hyde Park 8
Jefferson Park 4
Lake Balboa 1
Lake View Terrace 5
Leimert Park 2
Lincoln Heights 23
Los Feliz 10
Mar Vista 3
Montecito Heights 3
North Hills 2
North Hollywood 4
Pacific Palisades 2
Panorama City 5
San Pedro 7
Shadow Hills 1
Sherman Oaks 13
Silver Lake 5
South Park 9
Studio City 4
Sun Valley 9
Toluca Lake 1
University Park 17
Valley Village 3
Van Nuys 23
Vermont Knolls 1
Vermont Square 11
Vermont Vista 1
West Adams 5
West Hills 4
West Los Angeles 3
Windsor Square 2
Woodland Hills 14
Additional reporting by Jill Stewart and Dennis Romero
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